Inside the complex
Unless you arrive via the Inca Trail, you’ll officially enter the ruins through a ticket gate on the south side of Machu Picchu. About 100m of footpath brings you to the mazelike main entrance of Machu Picchu proper, where the ruins lie stretched out before you, roughly divided into two areas separated by a series of plazas.
Note that the names of individual ruins speculate their use – in reality, much is unknown. To get a visual fix of the whole site and snap the classic postcard photograph, climb the zigzagging staircase on the left immediately after entering the complex, which leads to the Hut of the Caretaker.
A scenic but level walk from the Hut of the Caretaker of the Funerary Rock takes you right past the top of the terraces and out along a narrow, cliff-clinging trail to the Inca drawbridge. In under a half-hour’s walk, the trail gives you a good look at cloud-forest vegetation and an entirely different view of Machu Picchu. This walk is recommended, though you’ll have to be content with photographing the bridge from a distance, as someone crossed the bridge some years ago and tragically fell to their death.
Wayna Picchu is the small, steep mountain at the back of the ruins. Wayna Picchu is normally translated as ‘Young Peak,’ but the word picchu, with the correct glottal pronunciation, refers to the wad in the cheek of a coca-leaf chewer. Access is limited to 400 people per day – the first 200 in line are let in at 7am, and another 200 at 10am. A ticket which includes a visit to the Temple of the Moon may only be obtained when you purchase your entrance ticket. These spots sell out a week in advance in low season and a month in advance in high season, so plan accordingly.
At first glance, it would appear that Wayna Picchu is a difficult climb but, although the ascent is steep, it’s not technically difficult. However, it is not recommended if you suffer from vertigo. Hikers must sign in and out at a registration booth located beyond the central plaza between two thatched buildings. The 45- to 90-minute scramble up a steep footpath takes you through a short section of Inca tunnel.
Take care in wet weather as the steps get dangerously slippery. The trail is easy to follow, but involves steep sections, a ladder and an overhanging cave, where you have to bend over to get by. Partway up Wayna Picchu, a marked path plunges down to your left, continuing down the rear of Wayna Picchu to the small Temple of the Moon. From the temple, another cleared path leads up behind the ruin and steeply onward up the back side of Wayna Picchu.
The descent takes about an hour, and the ascent back to the main Wayna Picchu trail longer. The spectacular trail drops and climbs steeply as it hugs the sides of Wayna Picchu before plunging into the cloud forest. Suddenly, you reach a cleared area where the small, very well-made ruins are found.
Cerro Machu Picchu is a very good alternative if you miss out.
Cerro Machu Picchu
A more gentle alternative to hiking Wayna Picchu, Cerro Machu Picchu has made strides in popularity recently. While lacking in drama, this 2km walk also happens to be more spectacular than Wayna Picchu, though you won't find archeological remains here. You will find abundant vegetation, including orchids. Allow yourself plenty of time to enjoy the scenery – and catch your breath.
The climb brings you to the top of Machu Picchu (3082m) mountain, to be rewarded with views along the Inca Trail down to the valley floor and across the site of Machu Picchu itself. There are 800 tickets available daily, with one-hour visits scheduled at 7am and 9am.